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Opinion Love it, don’t leave it: Why foreigners should engage with Swiss political issues

Hand posting a ballot paper

About a quarter of the resident population in Switzerland can’t take part in nationwide votes and elections. Political rights depend on citizenship. 

 

(Keystone/Gian Ehrenzeller)

An American living and working in Switzerland argues that non-citizens should not be afraid to speak their mind on social and political issues.

In the run-up to the October 20, 2019 Swiss parliamentary elections, there has been discussion about whether foreigners in Switzerland, who comprise approximately one fourth of the population, should have the right to vote at the national level.  Some cantons allow non-citizens to vote in local elections; other localities are considering this idea.      

point of view

I am optimistic about efforts to engage more people in the Swiss democracy, particularly given that Swiss citizenship is relatively restrictive.external link  But regardless of how the larger issue of voting rights is resolved, it is important to remember that foreigners can engage in Swiss politics and society in other ways: by organizing and joining in demonstrations, running “get out the vote” initiatives, raising money for NGOs, working with NGOs on advocacy campaigns, discussing social and policy issues with friends, and volunteering in the local community.

Alexandra Dufresne is a lawyer for children and refugees. She teaches law in Switzerland.

(Stephanie Anestis Photography)

Along with two Swiss and one Italian woman, I recently started an online action groupexternal link for people of all genders who are interested in taking steps, however modest, to improve gender equality in Switzerland. We started one month before the historic June 14, 2019 Women’s Strike and have grown to over 1,150 people. Most people in the group are Swiss citizens, though a good number of us are “not yet Swiss.”  We are one hundred percent volunteer, and our time commitment ranges from a few minutes to dozens of hours per week, depending on the member and the project.

Many Swiss women note that foreign women have historically played an important role in bringing change to Switzerland as newcomers can bring valuable outside perspectives. Some Swiss in the group have lived abroad and are struggling with “reverse cultural shock” on gender issues when they come back home. Some women I speak with seem visibly relieved to hear me note how outdated gender norms areexternal link, as they felt all along that something was amiss but were made to feel that they were the problem. Still others have been engaged in feminist activism in Switzerland for a long time and do not “need” the perspective of newcomers but are nonetheless glad to have extra foot soldiers in the fight.

Resentment of criticism

However, other people I encounter in daily life sometimes become resentful or angry when they witness a non-Swiss criticize an aspect of Swiss policy or culture, like gender relations. They make several arguments:

1) If you don't love Switzerland, just leave it

2) It is inappropriate for someone who is a "guest" here in Switzerland to criticize the "host”

3) It is inappropriate to criticize Switzerland if you come from a country in which human rights violations are more severe than in Switzerland

4) Immigrants should be grateful, not critical

5) It is inappropriate for certain classes of foreigners (namely, "expats") to criticize Switzerland because they are privileged and make things worse for middle and low-income Swiss, e.g. by raising rents and taking jobs, and

6) It is inappropriate for foreigners to criticize Switzerland because criticism is a form of cultural imperialism.

 Parsing the arguments

Arguments one through five are variations on common logical fallacies --- ad hominem attacks, and the Tu quoque fallacy, more commonly known as “whataboutism”. When someone speaks about an issue -- for instance, gender discrimination -- his or her arguments should be analyzed and evaluated on their merits rather than on his or her status as a foreigner. Similarly, “But what about…?” attacks miss the mark by being irrelevant. Yes, there is racism and sexism in the United States. Yes, there is racism and sexism in Switzerland. The existence of one does not negate the other; two things can be true at once.

And while I agree that it is rude for a guest to criticize a host, the “guest-host” analogy is, in this case, misplaced. Foreigners who live and work in Switzerland are not “guests”, mere tourists here to admire its lakes and mountains. We work here, pay taxes, raise our families here and contribute to the community, just like everyone else. Indeed, some “foreigners” were even born in Switzerland! Certainly, some foreigners intend to work in Switzerland for only a short while and accordingly do not invest the time or resources into what can be an unusually long process of integration. But most foreigners I know work very hard to adapt and integrate.

Argument six is a bit more compelling, as cultural imperialism is a real danger in many contexts, and I certainly understand why Switzerland would wish to preserve the many wonderful aspects of its unique cultural heritage. I agree that it is rude to criticize purely cultural choices-- for example food, music, dialects, or social customs -- that do not touch upon issues of human rights. But in the context of basic human rights, like gender equality, this argument is misplaced, particularly at a historical moment when tens of thousands of Swiss women took to the streets to demand equality.external link

The American analogy

By way of analogy, I grew up in Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s. The American South has some wonderful cultural traditions (Southern cooking, friendliness). It also has some appalling ones (racial oppression, violence). In the highly-segregated world in which I grew up, both overt and implicit racism was so deeply rooted in the culture that as a child, I accepted so many things that appear shocking in retrospect. Yet many Americans -- of all races -- were appalled by this racism and working hard to combat it.  Would it have been inappropriate for a Swiss immigrant to Atlanta to criticize the racism he perceived or participate in this civil rights struggle? 

Likewise, people I meet in Switzerland criticize the United States frequently. Even people I have just met ask me about Trump, gun violence, and homelessness; my students ask me about the death penalty all the time. Indeed, the greatest joy in teaching US law here in Switzerland is hearing the insights and perspectives of Swiss students. For this reason, another action group I help leadexternal link, which seeks to encourage Americans abroad to vote and politically engage with social justice issues in the United States, is thrilled to have in our ranks many Swiss citizens who do not have American citizenship. These members are not legally allowed to donate to political candidates, but we are grateful for their engagement in other activities, like making “get out the vote” videosexternal link.

The right to criticize and the courage to engage

In my view, foreigners in Switzerland have not only the right, but the obligation, to criticize problematic aspects of Swiss society and public policy, on the theory that constructive criticism is a form of political and social engagement that is crucial to the functioning of a democracy.  Speaking out -- if done fairly and carefully -- is a form of respect, even love. As James Baldwin, the legendary American novelist, said: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Likewise, being afraid of criticism is a sign of weakness; a country like Switzerland is strong enough for its citizens to accept constructive criticism gracefully. And just because things are – relatively speaking -- going pretty well for Switzerland compared to many countries around the world does not mean they could not be improved. As we can see from US political history, complacency and fear of change are poor long-term strategies.

As foreigners, we will receive a certain number of “go back home” comments regardless of what we do, simply by virtue of who we are. I used to take these comments to heart; a comment like this from a potential ally can really sting. But in cases like these, it is helpful to remember that logical fallacies are often used – consciously or inadvertently – to mask weaknesses in the substance of one’s argument.

We, as foreigners, can react to comments like these by retreating or by engaging. While it might feel more self-protective to retreat, I think the right answer is to engage. When it comes to a matter of basic human rights – like gender equality – too much is at stake for 25% of the resident population to keep quiet. Disagreement and conflict are inevitable, just as they are among Swiss citizens, but they are merely the tax we pay for living in a community. Diversity is hard. Conflict is hard. But disagreement and conflict are better than disengagement or apathy, and the strength of Switzerland – like that of so many countries – lies not its uniformity, but in its diversity.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch.

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